Review: The Reluctant Taoiseach: A Biography of John A Costello by David McCullagh
Gill & Macmillan, €27.99, Hardback
I never met John A Costello. I was three when he first became the "reluctant Taoiseach" and 12 when he ended his second term. He retired from politics at the first General Election at which I was entitled to vote, in 1969.
On the evidence of this biography, which I came to with very few pre-conceived ideas about the man (but with a continuing intellectual attachment to the party he substantially radicalised), I would very much like to have met him. I would happily have worked with the man who, in 1957, proposed a fact-finding committee to educate TDs and senators on the difference between the EEC and the European Free Trade Area. In a reaction typical of Fianna Fail's chronic shortsightedness, de Valera rejected the proposal.
The circumstances of Costello's appointment as the "reluctant Taoiseach" illustrate a nice kind of irony. Costello was, according to McCullagh, substantially motivated by what he saw as the opportunity which he, almost uniquely, would have to "get the gun out of politics".
The then Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy stood aside in favour of Costello at least partly because he saw this as a way of preventing de Valera, his old Civil War opponent, from re-gaining power.
Costello is presented here in a sympathetic but far from adulatory way. An eminent lawyer, he was unalterably committed to the rule of law. He opposed the provision of special powers and this perhaps delayed his government's reaction to the IRA's Border Campaign, which began in 1956.
He might arguably have moved more quickly against the IRA even without resorting to special powers if he had set about persuading Sean Mac Bride and the then Labour Party leader William Norton of the primacy of the role of the constitutional state.
At the same time, he had to deal with the tensions inherent in a coalition government. In this, he was in every sense a pioneer. His first government was composed of five parties and relied on the support of eight independents. His second Government consisted of three parties (Labour having re-absorbed National Labour) with the support of Clann na Poblachta and had the support of some Independents.
Each of these Governments demanded massive patience and understanding, with periodic difficulties as a result of the prima donna behaviour, not only of "outside" supporters but also of ministers. In an era in which single-party government seems a remote prospect and with the certainty of fiscal strain for some years into the future, Costello's experience gives much food for thought.
The Mother and Child controversy is covered in some detail and with some new insights. Costello was far from being the only member of the government to treat the Roman Catholic hierarchy with what would today be seen to be undue deference.
On a number of subsequent occasions, Costello showed a much sharper appreciation of the proper independence of the political system from the temporal policy ambitions of Roman Catholic Bishops.
McCullagh deals with the declaration of the Republic in Canada at some length and with some new insights. Costello's work as Attorney General in a previous government on the knotty issue of the Free State's relationship with the Commonwealth meant that he probably had a far greater understanding of the ramifications of this announcement than anybody else.
McCullagh draws attention to Costello's role as a reformer, albeit sometimes a tardy one. In his second government, he allowed finance minister Gerard Sweetman and his department to block initiatives on the Public Capital Programme for far too long.
Equally, he was too deferential for too long to Norton and the Department of Industry and Commerce in the matter of amending the Control of Manufactures Act in order to promote inward investment in Irish industry. He allowed the Revenue Commissioners to block initiatives aimed at stimulating export industries. The result was that it was left to Sean Lemass to give reality to reforms which Costello wished to initiate.
In his conclusion, McCullagh comments on Costello's approach to economic difficulties that "...drastic medicine only becomes acceptable when the depths have been plumbed". Quite!
Alan Dukes is a former leader of Fine Gael